“There is no book so dangerous that it should not be available in a library”

This week is Banned Books Week. It should come as no surprise that the topics of censorship, banned books and cancelled authors are a regular theme of discussion at Index on Censorship. In fact we are the UK partner of the global coalition against banned books. The banning of books has repeatedly proven to be a key tool in the arsenal of tyrants and repressive regimes. Control of information and the need for one dominant narrative always leads despots to ban and even burn books. It’s been true throughout history and as much as that concerns me (and it does – a lot) – what worries me more is how pervasive the banning of books is becoming across more democratic countries and what that means for enlightened societies and their peoples.

I truly struggle to comprehend the rationale behind the banning of a specific text or author.

Words can be challenging, thought-provoking and yes, of course, they can even be hateful and inciting. But the answer, surely, is to argue back, to find different authors, to debate and win an argument – not to ban, not to cancel and definitely not to remove from the shelves of our libraries.

The editor in chief of Index, Jemimah Steinfeld, asked the team to write about their favourite banned books as part of the campaign. And as you will have seen I wrote about Judy Blume, one of my favourite authors as a child, I find it ludicrous that anyone would seek to ban books which help young people come to understand their own sexuality or their personal relationships with faith.

But I could have written about a dozen other authors whose words have shaped my worldview but yet inspired such hate and fear that others have sought to ban them. The works of George Orwell were key to helping me develop my own politics – 1984 and Animal Farm confirmed my lifelong commitment to social democratic politics and inspired my personal political campaigns against those on the extremes. Yet these works have been banned repeatedly and not just in repressive regimes but also in some US school districts, unbelievably for being pro-Communist (it really would help if people read the books before they sought to ban them…)

And as a Jewish European woman my politics are grounded, for better or worse, in understanding the horrors of the Shoah. As a student of history I, of course, believe that we must understand our history so that we aren’t destined to repeat it. So the banning of Anne Frank’s diary and the graphic novel Maus by Art Spielgelman, is completely beyond my comprehension. The crucial importance of both of these books isn’t just the subject matter – but the fact that they bring the horrors of a very dark period of our history to life in a format which is accessible to all – including young people. What is there to ban?  Unless your real goal is to rewrite Jewish and European history?

Books are the light, they drive challenge and change. They feed our minds and ensure that societies move on and develop. They educate, inform and entertain, even when they are wrong. There are books that I have considered to be of no value, books which I have considered to contain dangerous views and books which I consider to be hateful. But there is no book so dangerous that I don’t think it should be available in an academic library, available to study.

And if you believe on freedom of speech – then that’s the least you should believe too.

Why we need Banned Books Week more than ever

What do popstar Ariana Grande, filmmaker Guillermo del Torro and 90s rock sensation Garbage have in common? They’ve all joined the fight against book bans in the USA, just ahead of Banned Books Week.

Alongside more predictable figures like Margaret Atwood, Roxane Gay and Judy Blume, they are some of more than 170 artists who signed an open letter condemning book bans and calling on Hollywood to use its influence.

“We refuse to remain silent as one creative field is subjected to oppressive bans,” the artists wrote. “As artists, we must band together, because a threat to one form of art is a threat to us all.”

They make it clear that the censorship will not end with book bans. Right now, schools and libraries are facing challenges over a particular selection of books with specific themes, which can lead to local bans. How long before Hollywood faces the wrath of those who want to shield their children from what they deem inappropriate content? How long before certain stories go untold?

PEN America recently released its latest book ban report, which makes for sobering reading. In just one year, bans have increased by a third, with a total of 3,362 bans in the 2022-23 school year. The sharp rise in book bans is largely targeted at books with LGBTQ+ content, characters or authors; books about race or racism; and books about physical abuse or with themes of grief or death. The problem is most rampant in school districts in Florida, where 40% of the bans originate, totalling 1,406 cases.

A huge percentage of the school districts where bans are taking place have a neighbour in common: a chapter of one of the advocacy groups pushing for bans, one of the most prolific of which is the conservative group Moms for Liberty. One member even set up a repository of “objectionable content” called Book Looks, according to a report by Book Riot — although the website itself claims to not be affiliated with the group.

One book under the spotlight in Book Looks is teen sex education book This Book is Gay by Juno Dawson, which made the list of the most banned books last year, compiled by the American Library Association. The website distils the book down into a few sections of text in a “slick sheet” and comes with a rating of four (out of five), which is described as not being suitable for under 18s and containing “obscene references to sexual activity” or “explicit sexual nudity.” The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood receives the same score, as do The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini and Forever by Judy Blume.

I spoke to Juno Dawson for the most recent issue of Index on Censorship, of which I am the assistant editor, which landed with readers in time for Banned Books Week 2023 (1-7 October). On her most recent book tour in the US, which was for her children’s picture book You Need to Chill, she had to take a bodyguard for her own safety, due to her status as a trans woman who writes about LGBTQ+ issues. After the Hilton school district in New York State received a bomb threat in March over a selection of books including This Book is Gay, Dawson’s picture book tour did not take in schools or libraries.

“One of the key issues is people aren’t actually reading the book,” she said. “And so what happens is actually they are protesting books which have appeared on other lists. Vexatious people and groups who are trying to ban books are not going to books and reading books. They are just scouring the internet for books that they should be irate about.”

A small anti-censorship community called Save Samuels publishes book challenges sent to Samuels Public Library, saying: “We won’t allow our library to be used as a political wedge to win over religious voters at the expense of our LGBTQ+ community.”

One of the challenges it has posted is to Dawson’s picture book You Need to Chill, which reads “it is specifically crafted to normalise gender dysphoria and transitioning of children” and claims that the full text has been posted on a website (which it has, regardless of copyright law) with the aim of warning other parents.

The book challenger also demands that the book be destroyed, rather than rehomed. In another challenge directed at the picture book Mama and Mommy and Me in the Middleby Nina LaCour, the challenger is asked whether they have read the book, to which they respond: “I have not.”

Dawson discussed the damage done when particular books are targeted.

“Let’s be quite clear, when people challenge a book about race, or a book about being LGBTQ, really what they’re trying to ban is being queer, or they’re trying to restrict the lives of young Black people,” she said.

The special report in our latest issue of Index explores how religion is being weaponised by the right. This Book is Gay has faced pressure from faith groups, and Dawson was quick to point out that it’s not just one group.

Another author who knows plenty about coming under fire from the religious right is Margaret Atwood, who also spoke to Index. In light of the recent uptick in book bans, she has no doubt that people are using religion in a more emboldened way, explaining that it is hard to argue with God.

“If you can accuse your enemies of heresy and blasphemy it’s somehow more potent than accusing them of not agreeing with you politically,” she said. “You’re not just disagreeing with Mr Sunak, you’re disagreeing with God.”

The Handmaid’s Tale, arguably Atwood’s most famous book, is not anti-religion but rather explores how religion is abused. She sees the latest developments in the US as being more about power than religion. For Atwood, shutting down speech on both the left and right leads to trouble.

“People who are actually interested in free speech have to realise that they cannot just defend the speech which they approve of,” she said. “Free speech does mean free speech. There are always limits to it so you can’t say ‘sign up here to become a child molester’, but you have to defend the principle and a lot of people find it difficult to defend the right of their ideological enemies to express those opinions.”

While PEN’s report outlines worrying ways in which book banners are digging in their heels, it also offers hope. Students are pushing back. Some are walking out in protest, as in the case of Hempfield school district in Pennsylvania, and others have delivered speeches encouraging people to read banned books, such as the valedictorian in Sioux City, Iowa, who then handed a copy of This Book is Gay to the school’s superintendent.

On top of the Hollywood letter in support of the freedom to read, September offered up one more positive move — California’s law banning book bans. Governor Gavin Newson signed the bill into law, which will stop schools from banning books on the basis that they contain “inclusive and diverse perspectives”. The law comes into effect immediately.

It is clear that actions like this are needed now more than ever, and for public figures, legislators and activists to continue fighting back against censorship. A collective action on 7 October, Let Freedom Read Day, where everyone is invited to take one action against book censorship, is a good start. Left unchecked, skyrocketing book bans could soar even higher.

A version of this article was originally published in Byline Times

Preparing for a new fight against book bans

Just over a month after Banned Books Week 2022, the risk to literature has intensified. Depending on the outcome of the US midterms, moves from Republican lawmakers to silence certain books could take a firmer grip.

On library shelves in the USA, certain books have fallen prey to challenges and subsequent localised bannings. There’s a blank space where Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye used to sit in many Florida schools (and beyond), while Juno Dawson’s This Book is Gay has been banned in a septuplet of states. The incredible Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, an interweaving of narratives that crosses generations and continents, has been carted away on the librarian’s trolley in areas of Florida, Georgia, Missouri and Texas.

Of the banned works, the vast majority centre stories of people of colour or LGBTQ+ characters and authors. A recent report from PEN America found there were over 2,500 book bans across 32 states between July 2021 and June 2022. And where America goes, the rest of the world often follows.

In the autumn issue of Index on Censorship, we explored book bannings in the USA and the growing movement to keep literature free.

George M Johnson, author of one of the most banned books in the USA, wrote about how being banned gave them a hunger to write more, to deal with the racism and sexual identity that they had no resources to tackle as a child. We spoke to Kings Books in Tacoma, Washington State, where a monthly banned books club sets free the literature which has been erased from the shelves of school libraries and classrooms.

“You end up talking about topics that don’t normally come up in conversation because banned books cover those controversial topics [including] the clichéd things you don’t talk about in public,” the club’s co-ordinator David Raff said.

This group puts freedom to read into practice, and it is not alone. There’s the protest against book censorship in classrooms, where students in Texas staged a read-in at the Capitol Rotunda, devouring books on a Republican lawmaker’s list of condemned titles. Students in Pennsylvania stood up against books being removed from their library. Parents in Texas and Florida organised protests. Against the rising tide of book bannings, even calls to burn books which echo the darkest moments in history, people are resisting.

The big question around these book bannings is: why? Why would parents or lawmakers seek to ban The Handmaid’s Tale, The Hate U Give, or I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings? Even the stunning children’s picture book by Jessica Love, Julian is a Mermaid, does not escape the censor’s wrath in areas of Florida and Pennsylvania.

Of the banned works, the vast majority centre stories of people of colour or LGBTQ+ characters and authors. As the latest American Library Association (ALA) report puts it, the challenges are often led by conservative groups to shut down materials which “address racism, gender and sexual identity”.

The most-banned books, compiled by PEN America, paint this picture clearly. George M. Johnson’s All Boys Aren’t Blue is banned in multiple areas of 13 states, including New York and Washington. Lawn Boy by Jonathan Evison racks up bans in 12 states. And Maia Kobabe’s graphic novel Gender Queer: A Memoir, is missing from shelves in multiple school districts in 15 states, landing the unenviable spot as most-banned book.

In Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis signed a bill that allowed parents to search a list of books available in schools and to object, specifically referencing Lawn Boy as containing passages of “paedophilia”. Meanwhile Moms for Liberty was one of the groups that spearheaded the campaign for All Boys Aren’t Blue to be banned, tweeting: “They [school board members] want to rob children of their innocence.”

I spoke to Nick Higgins, the chief librarian at Brooklyn Public Library, where the Books Unbanned project supports young people across the USA facing book challenges or outright bans in their communities. Brooklyn might not be at the sharp end of book bannings, but they’ve extended their relatively censorship-free status to allow young people across the whole country to access their catalogue of half a million eBooks and audiobooks using a free library card – whether the books are banned or not. Higgins says the library wants everyone to have access to a well-maintained, diverse, broad spectrum of ideas.

“This is what it means to live in a pluralistic society,” he said. “You are encountered with ideas that you agree with, and ideas that you don’t agree with, and the diversity of a community is something that makes us richer, stronger, more empathetic to one another, and is really necessary for a healthy democratic society.”

The recent spate of book challenges and bans, he said, is a movement to silence particular voices and lock away those narratives.

“What that says to a young person […] trying to seek out voices that sound like their own, characters that speak to them – and they find adults in their communities taking those stories off the shelves and hiding them away – it says to that young person that they don’t belong in that community, they have no place in that community and their voice doesn’t matter,” he said.

And the library hasn’t stopped with the Books Unbanned project. There’s a virtual banned books club, most recently discussing Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe with teen librarian Jes G. Young adult interns also formed the Teen Intellectual Freedom Council, creating a network of young people. They meet remotely with a group of teens in Austin, Texas – the state that tops the list in number of bans and where in 2021 a bill passed prohibiting lessons where “an individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of the individual’s race or sex”. One of the bill’s sponsors, Representative Matt Krause, followed up by demanding that libraries tell him if they carried any of the 850 books on his hit list.

“It’s a troubling development in this fight, where lawmakers are getting involved in basically doing the work of professional librarians, are doing the work of professional educators, and making the case that because they in some way, shape or form are allocating funds to support this institution, then they have the say on what is actually presented on the shelves or in the classroom,” Higgins said.

The #FReadom campaign in Texas is another grassroots effort. Sparked in response to Matt Krause’s list of condemned books, #FReadom started life as a Twitter hashtag where people were asked to tweet about diverse books across a day of action. After a huge success, the campaign morphed into a website, alongside behind-the-scenes work to support librarians facing book challenges. The goal is to uplift and support librarians, as well as providing resources for those who want to speak up. I spoke to retired librarian and one of the founders of #FReadom, Carolyn Foote.

“Obviously there’s a hunger for fighting back against censorship and fighting for intellectual freedom,” Foote told me. “So many librarians are scared to speak up. And so I’ve kind of become the spokesperson for our group because I am retired. I don’t have an institution keeping an eye on what I’m saying.”

Book challenges, she said, are extremely isolating for librarians. But the empathy and support the campaign musters is designed to give people hope, and to remind people who librarians are.

When Matt Krause’s list of books came out, she remembers how glaringly obvious it was that the target was books about race, authors of colour and LGBTQ+ topics.

“We felt like it was so important to speak up on [behalf of our] more marginalised kids or more vulnerable kids, because it was their stories being removed from the shelf,” she said.

When America’s bookshelves are emptied of very specific books, everyone loses. The young readers, the librarians, the teachers and the communities that miss out on important and varied conversations. Uncomfortable topics are buried instead of addressed, brilliant books become taboo. As Carolyn Foote said to me, “Libraries are about truth telling.”

But while the book ban figures increase and a new threat looms, the movement to unban books shows no signs of slowing down.

An earlier modified version of this article was originally published on The Bookseller.

What you missed from Banned Books Week 2020

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”115172″ img_size=”full”][vc_column_text]Books have long been objects of contention, criticised for spreading ideas which go against the status quo. They are removed from libraries and bookshops, burned, banned and vandalised while writers are attacked, threatened, imprisoned. These actions are nothing new, yet the importance of preserving our freedom to read is more important now than ever. 

Freedom to read is at the centre of Banned Books Week, an initiative which has sought to challenge censorship on both sides of the Atlantic, bringing together literary communities – librarians, booksellers, publishers, journalists, teachers, and readers – in shared support of the freedom to seek and to express ideas, even those some consider unorthodox or unpopular.

The initiative was launched in the USA in 1982 in response to a surge in the number of challenges to books in schools. Since then, it has sought to highlight the value of free and open access to information. Each year sees an exciting strand of events, readings list, games and activities designed to get people thinking about books that have been banned throughout history, and are still causing offense today. 

As the 2020 Banned Books Week comes to a close, we have a chance to reflect on the impact the initiative has had over the past 38 years, and consider the work we still need to do to ensure everyone is free to read. 

Censoring literature is nothing new. It has a long and dark history and has been exercised by governments, political parties and religious groups for centuries. Book burning, which has been recorded as early as the 7th century BCE, and proliferated under the Nazi party in Germany in 1933, is emblematic of a harsh and oppressive regime which is seeking to censor or silence some aspect of prevailing culture. 

Today’s methods of censorship remain prevalent yet differ in style. Political leaders use legal methods to silence or prohibit writing which paints themselves and their parties in an unpleasant light – techniques not so different to the vexatious lawsuits used to silence journalists. Academic textbooks are rewritten to paint recent historical events in a very different light, and a favourite illustrated bear has long been banned to protect the ego of other fragile leaders. 

As well as these more blatant signs of government censorship, literature is still challenged today. Some of the most canonical works of the 20th century have famously been challenged – including The Handmaid’s Tale, Animal Farm and Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which this year sees the 60th anniversary of its uncensored publication in the UK. But it is children’s books that cause a particular stir, such as And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell which tells the true story of two male penguins who create a family together and was subsequently banned in US schools and libraries for depicting same-sex marriage and adoption. 

While this year’s Banned Books Week took a different shape from previous years, we had the pleasure of hearing a number of writers speak about their experiences of being silenced, censored or simply refused a platform. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the resultant global Black Lives Matter protests, it has been clearer than ever before that the voices of some are prioritised to the exclusion of others. 

In an online session on 29 September, Urvashi Butalia spoke to poet Rachel Long, and authors Elif Shafak and Jacqueline Woodson about what ‘freedom’ means in the culture of traditional publishing, and how writers today can change the future of literature. During the event, Shafak defended freedom of speech and spoke about her experience of seeing her works of fiction brought into the courtroom – “it was very surreal to me. Art needs freedom, even though it may be harmful in the eyes of authorities.” 

Shafak’s comments harked back to those made by Nobel laureate Toni Morrison during the launch of the Free Speech Leadership Council, an advocacy arm of the National Coalition Against Censorship. At the event, Morrison spoke of her novel Song of Solomon being banned at a prison after the warden expressed fear that it might stir the incarcerated to riot. An acoustical lapse led Morrison to speculate as to whether the real fear was of the inmates incitement to “riot” or “write” – asking, which would ultimately be the most dangerous?

While authorities and governments fear literary works that are seen to challenge them, we are reminded this Banned Books Week of the importance of free artistic expression and of literature’s power to challenge even the most powerful, oppressive forces. [/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][three_column_post title=”You might also like to read” category_id=”581″][/vc_column][/vc_row]